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Is it time to be less territorial over where public finance resources are budgeted?
There has been much recent debate about the funding of police services in England and Wales and how to interpret the current information on performance measures that are in place.
Are police budgets rising? Are crime levels rising or falling and how effective are the Police in solving crime? These are valid questions, especially in light of the recent news coverage of knife crimes, particularly in London, and Home Secretary’s claim that the rise in knife crime was not connected to police funding.
Equally relevant questions are what resources are going into addressing some of the underlying causes of crime? And how effective have those resources been at delivering tangible outcomes for the longer-term?
A case in point is Prime Ministers Questions on the 7 February that centred on an exchange between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on resources for Policing. Both made conflicting points about crime statistics and resources available to police and the criminal justice system. The Prime Minister pointed to the drop in overall levels of crime and to government support for the Police budget. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition pointed to the reduction in Police numbers and the rise in reported crime, particularly more violent crime. Surely both could not be right?
For the answer, let’s consider The Institute for Government and CIPFA’s Performance Tracker that was published in the autumn of 2017. The document was the second edition and brought together a wide range of data to provide a comprehensive picture of the performance of government in running key public services. So what did this tell us about the performance of public services in the area of Law and Order?
It shows a mixed picture. This is one where real terms spending is decreasing, yet overall public satisfaction with the Police in England and Wales remains steady. In terms of the Police service in England and Wales, the tracker points to a 17% real terms decrease in spending from 2009/10 to 2016/17. There are also 14% fewer police officers than in 2009, however, the percentage of the public rating the police as good or excellent has remained steady at or around 60%.
In regard to the wider criminal justice service, spending on the Courts and Tribunals Service has declined by 19% since 2010/11 and there is almost a third less staff in the Courts and Tribunals Service than in 2011. Spending on Prisons is also down from 2009/10 by 22% alongside a reduction of a quarter in the number of prison officers since 2010. It’s worth bearing in mind the staffing and resources available to other arms of the Justice services as they are interlinked, problems that arise in one area can have a knock on impact in other areas of the system.
Having reduced resources and less staff does not necessarily mean that the level of service has or has to go down. If crime has fallen, then it would make sense that less resources would be required. That is a simple logic, but it is perhaps more about understanding what drives the need for resources and that might well be a wider range of factors than simply a fall in crime rates. Again in regards to crime levels the picture is also not clear. For example, the performance tracker report noted figures for police-recorded crime showing that in the year to March 2017 there was an increase of 10% in overall crime, and an 18% increase in violence against the person. By contrast to that, the Crime Survey for England and Wales, an estimate of crime based on people’s experiences, found that overall crime fell by 7% in the same period, and levels of violent crime remained flat.
This all points to the need to fully understand what the available information is telling us. We need to, as far as possible, eliminate any difficulty in being able to accurately assess changes in the level of crime and how this might impact on Police resources. This becomes more critical when trying to assess the drivers of resources. It would seem logical that certainly one driver of resources would be the level of reported crime. If it increases then increased resources would be required to appropriately respond to those points of contact. Of course this is likely not to be the single driver of resource consumption.
If we can understand the drivers of resources, then we can start to understand and tackle the underlying causes and develop plans for resources that target those causes in a more coordinated way throughout the crime and justice system. We also need to ensure that those plans are underpinning the need to support outcomes across the system as a whole. This approach though needs support at a policy level and time to yield benefits. Currently the law and order system is under pressure as over successive years the Police, Prisons and the Justice system has made cuts to support services and in some cases front line services in response to available budgets. This arguably reactive approach to the level of available resources has left little room to adjust when pressures in the system build up other than injecting more resources as a quick fix.
So who was right in the exchange between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition? Taking account of the data available in the performance tracker, what we can say is that across the Justice system there have been real terms reductions in resources since 2009/10. We know that the public perception is that the Police are doing a good job. However, we need to consider and adjust to the challenges of addressing rising reported crime with less resources. This requires not only policy support for more innovative and joined up approaches but also accurate and reliable measures of what drives the need for resources and how that can be better managed throughout the system.
The time now is to take stock of the data, improve the information and data available and set plans for longer term collaboration and the sustainability of the services. Keep an eye out for the next edition of the performance tracker report from CIPFA and the Institute for government which is due out in spring 2018.